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Candid Carlson: Record-breaking No. 2 UCLA women’s basketball deserves historic attendance

The crowd cheers in Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 6 for UCLA women’s basketball against Purdue. (Brandon Morquecho/Assistant Photo editor)

By Gavin Carlson

Nov. 28, 2023 6:38 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 28 at 9:13 p.m.

As the game tipped off just prior to noon, the sideline sections of Pauley Pavilion were near full capacity.

Unlike men’s basketball games, the lack of empty seats in those particular areas of the arena were a welcome sight for a women’s basketball program that averaged fewer than 3,000 fans per home game last season and just over 1,000 the year prior.

But the stands were not packed with thousands of UCLA students.

Rather, the historic collegiate arena was filled with thousands of children letting off high-pitched screams and dancing to “Baby” by Justin Bieber.

On Nov. 17, then-No. 3 UCLA women’s basketball defeated Princeton as a crowd of 6,243 filled the seats. The contest was the program’s “Field Trip Day” game, in which elementary school students from local schools took a break from class and boarded a bus to Westwood to watch Division I basketball.

Regardless of the age of most in the stands, the attendance of more than 6,000 was an accomplishment for a team that had not eclipsed 2,200 fans in any of its previous three home games to kick-off the 2023 campaign.

UCLA Athletics was clearly proud of it too, as that 6,243 number was mentioned in just the second sentence of the its recap of the game, which typically does not speak on attendance.

But that is still less than half of Pauley Pavilion’s maximum capacity of approximately 13,800 people.

It’s time for 50% capacity to be the average, not ceiling, for women’s basketball in Westwood.

Since that Friday afternoon win over the Tigers, the Bruins ascended to their highest ranking in program history at No. 2. Then, UCLA traveled to the Cayman Islands and never trailed in a 78-67 win over then-No. 6 Connecticut – the Bruins’ first-ever win against the storied Huskies’ program.

This team has achieved unprecedented success early on, and it has the stars and storylines to warrant massive crowds.

Graduate student guard Charisma Osborne has already moved up to fourth on UCLA’s all-time scoring list after making a surprising return to Westwood this offseason. Sophomore center Lauren Betts – towering at 6-foot-7 – has looked unstoppable on both ends since the former No. 1 overall recruit transferred from Pac-12 rival Stanford in April.

Sophomore guard Kiki Rice – the No. 2-ranked recruit behind Betts – proved why she was the Jordan Brand’s first-ever NIL Athlete when she went for 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the win against UConn. And sophomore forward Gabriela Jaquez has already posted a career-high 30 points this season while donning one of Westwood’s favorite last names on the back of her jersey.

Last year, I wrote a column about UCLA needing to take a leap in order to gain more attention. That was after coach Cori Close’s team garnered an average of 2,861 fans per Pauley Pavilion contest en route to a 27-10 record and Sweet Sixteen appearance.

So far in 2023, the Bruins have done just that – and their success comes at a time when sports fans in Westwood need a team they can believe in.

The state of UCLA’s football program can be best summed up by the “READ THE ROOM – FIRE CHIP KELLY” message that flew over campus Tuesday.

You would need more than three Pauley Pavilions to hold the 42,439 fans that watched their team crumble against a below-average California by almost four touchdowns at the Rose Bowl on Saturday.

UCLA men’s basketball, while full of potential, is still 0-2 in its first two games against ranked opponents in 2023. Those Bruins are unproven, unranked and still trying to replace one of the most accomplished and beloved groups of core players in recent history.

Beyond UCLA’s two largest teams, the entire Los Angeles sports landscape appears to be struggling.

USC football is a mess after losing five of its last six games and getting trounced by the aforementioned Bruins. Its men’s basketball team recently lost to UC Irvine and is already underperforming after entering 2023 with record-setting anticipation from its fanbase.

Professionally, the Rams and Chargers both boast losing records, and the Lakers and Clippers are both hovering around .500 while looking mediocre at best.

Only one major LA team in the country’s two biggest sports is elite right now, and it is a UCLA women’s basketball team that exceeds its USC counterpart and hasn’t hosted over 7,000 fans in a regular-season game in at least the last two years.

There has never been a better time for Close’s program to break attendance records.

In some regards, it seems as though UCLA already knows this.

At halftime of every single women’s basketball game at Pauley Pavilion, Wescom Credit Union is giving away $1,000 to a fan.

It’s not a gimmick where a fan has to make a half-court heave.

This year’s promotions are competitions between two fans, and someone is guaranteed to take home the large sum. It’s not quite paying fans to come, but it is about as close to that as possible given that UCLA students can attend every game for free.

Close continues to contribute to the fan experience by doing halftime and postgame interviews on the court. The players often engage in meet-and-greets with fans after the game.

The Bruins’ efforts thus far in 2023 – both on and off of the court – deserve that and more.

With conference home games a month away, soon we’ll see if Westwood gives it to them.

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Gavin Carlson | Sports staff
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
Carlson is currently a staff writer on the football, men's basketball and women's basketball beats. He was previously a reporter on the softball and men's golf beats.
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